Monday, July 30, 2012


I dunno.

I always kinda liked Jonah Lehrer.

I never read his books, but I meant to.

I figured they were the neuroscience equivalent of Malcolm Gladwell.

I think those kinds of people are generally good for the field. So what if his books are dumbed down. That kind of dumbed down stuff is what gets people interested in the field, and that leads a few of them to go beyond that stuff.

I feel bad for him. It must suck to be in his position.

Assuming there are no other skeletons, he seems to be handling this as well as he can.

I hope he can bounce back. Id be curious to know what he does next.

Maybe he can take over Hauser's book Evilicious about morality, which I assume is on ice now.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Olympic Village brand condoms

Why hasn't this been done yet?
Olympic Village Brand Condoms?
It could make condoms cool again!

Here's my suggestions for the ad campaign that I came up with in the last 10 minutes.

1. When you get home you want them to ask “silver or gold?” not “pink or blue?”

2. Don’t pass one of these tests:
Only to fail one of these:

3. Put a muzzle on your air rifle

4. Sometimes geopolitics is complicated:

 Sometimes it’s simple: 

 For the times when it’s simple.

5. After 10 pm in the Olympic Village, it’s time for the Synchronized Something Else

6. Because Rhythmic Gymnastics is more precise than the Rhythm Method.

7. Leave on this belt: 

Take off this one:

8. Because the World’s Fastest Man isn’t always the World’s Fastest Man. If you know what we mean.

9. For the woman who's an expert at the parallel bars, not the parallel legs


11. In the Olympic Village, there's no need to pommel your own horse.

12. Because sometimes even the world's greatest athletes have a "false start"

13. Because there's another javelin event the public doesnt get to see

14. Bring home the gold, not the herp.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Contrary thoughts on academic whining, part 2

Research today is solid but not pathbreaking: This is like, the most common whine I hear, and I hear it ALL THE TIME. There's no way to argue with it, just like there's no way to convince someone the world isn't going to end in November 2012. You just have to wait and see. It's a really stupid argument because the person making it has to convince you they know better than you what's really truly creative stuff. I just don't believe them. I suspect the research now is just as creative as it ever has been, if not more so, thanks to the faster exchange of ideas permitted by email.

Papers are shorter nowadays: This is a good thing. I'm in favor of shorter papers. People should write more efficiently. I hate old Journal of Neurophysiology papers with 10 numbered paragraphs in the Abstract. (Even if you disagree with me, have you considered that maybe people are splitting their papers up into smaller bites to increase their number of pubs, which is probably innocuous?)

"The picture we paint is, of course, stylized" - "We are just being whiny and we know it"

Modelling papers are replacing field-based papers: Or maybe the field research has produced so much data that the field of study can now support modelling papers? Why do you think they are replacing instead of augmenting?

"More papers focus on black-and-white analyses because there is no journal (or mental) space for nuanced discussions": I doubt this is true. It may be that people are picking up the NIH-style habit of couching their data in the framework of hypothesis-driven research.

But if there are fewer nuanced discussions in the literature, I bet some of those nuanced discussions are being shifted off-line towards in-person meetings, phone conversations, video chats, and emails. Conferences and lab visits are much cheaper and thus more common since airline deregulation in the late 1970's and the continued decline in airplane prices since then.

"Academics are increasingly busy with more papers, more grants, and more emails to keep the machinery going". While this line sounds like it comes from a Pink Floyd album, it is still from the same whiny paper. First of all, writing papers is fun, and if you disagree you are in the wrong job. More papers = more fun. More emails is a sign of increased efficiency. I can take some days and work from home because of email. It's made me much more efficient.

"The modern mantra of quantity is taking a heavy toll on two prerequisites for generating wisdom: creativity and reflection." I disagree with this 100%. First of all, everyone knows that the major pre-requisite for generating "wisdom" [which I will interpret to mean scientific knowledge] is improved technological methods, not more sitting around jerking off. Second of all, the fact that I can collect  more data faster means I can test hypotheses faster and learn more faster than before and make connections while the info is still fresh in my mind. If that results in more papers faster, so be it. I'll make them shorter so I can write more of them.

"Creativity suffers under excessive pressure" - true but it also suffers under lack of pressure. Just ask some deadwood tenured faculty in your department. There is an optimal amount of pressure.

Academics should live a good life, not be in a rat race: Uh... we should also have Phish Food for breakfast every morning, but not get fat. Who's in favor??

Contrary thoughts on standard academic whining

I don't usually read TREES, but someone tweeted this paper, and I wanted to give my thoughts. The paper isnt particularly bad, but it just summarizes in one place all the whines I see all the time, and puts them together in one place. I don't know the authors. I assume it was written by Grandpa Simpson.

I am a newbie in academia, just barely a 2nd yr assistant professor. Sprinkle salt liberally.

There is too much measurement in academia: I don't really see this. In my experience, people do measure h-index, number of pubs, etc, but then use this as one of many factors in making decisions. In my position, the person who got the offer before me (and turned it down, obviously), had fewer pubs in lower journals than me, but the department made the same choice I would have in offering her the job first: she had a better, more interesting, more creative narrative than me. I am also thinking of one department chair-ship I am privy to the details on, in which the administration went with the person who had fewer papers and lower h-index in part because of the perceived quality of the papers, and in part due to unmeasurable gut feelings. These stories are typical in my experience.

I suspect that measurement is often used as an excuse when people are rejected for other, qualitative reasons.

And I have to add in here: the opposite of too much measurement is not academic paradise. It's extreme nepotism. Ask someone who has worked in the Italian university system.

Researchers are judged by the amount of grant money they bring in: BFD. That's how universities make their money, in overhead. That overhead rains down on people who have less remunerative interests. The opposite of judging based on grant $ is no soft-money institutes, and much greater competition for the few slots.

Standards for productivity have gone up: The numbers they give don't make sense. Standard have quadrubled in a "few" years? What's a few, like 4-5? I dont know. I don't buy it.

I do have a theory though. I call it the neuropolarbear theory of academic titles.
It goes like this.
The names we used for academics 50 years ago (or whatever halcyon age you want to look back to) are different than the present.

50 years ago                 Today 
Grad student                 Grad student
Assistant professor       Post-doc
Associate professor      Assistant professor
Full professor               Associate professor

I bet that salaries on the right hand side are better for each category than they were 50 years ago.

Anyhow, even if standards have gone up, this needs to account for the increase in startups and salary that support those increasing standards.

"This volume of papers is attained via large laboratory groups and research consortia, which in turn require massive amounts of funding". So more money is being put into the system and more papers are coming out. Why is this bad?

[To be continued in part II]

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Google scholar is the Piratebay of pdf's... why are they still in business?

Several years ago, Piratebay realized something brilliant.

If they stopped hosting torrents, and just made themselves a search engine for movies and music, they were immune to being shut down.

Of course, we all know that the government wised up to that and through some legal means that I don't understand decided that search engines could be liable for content they did not host.

This sucks, but regardless, the important point is that Google Scholar is doing the same thing sof PDFs.

Somehow, they go through all the PDF's on the internet and link them up to pointers referring to the articles, so when I search for, let's say "The Psychology of the Fruit Machine: The Role of Structural Characteristics (Revisited)" [as I was doing about 10 minutes ago], it's there for free on Google Scholar. 

But it would be $34.95 on SpringerLink!!!

Google Scholar just saved me $34.95. Yay!

Why isn't Springer suing their pants off?

How can this be legal?

I'm not complaining. Quite the opposite. Just, it's seriously the piratebay of PDFs. 

Oh and in my opinion, #icanhazpdf is the same exact level of quasi-legality. Actually, #icanhazpdf would seem to be even more legal, since in that case at least it's your own tweeps sending you the document, not the all-knowing power of google.

Speaking of which, does anyone ever pay for journal articles ever??? I can't imagine someone - anyone - putting down $34.95 for one paper. Especially when, about half the time, it's free about 5 clicks away on google scholar.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Being a professor is easier than being a grad student

I have been an assistant professor for one year now. And thinking about it today, I realize it's a lot easier than being a grad student.

True, I work a lot harder than I did as a post-doc, and that involved working harder than grad school. I do of course accomplish a lot more daily. There is definitely more stress and anxiety - more people depend on me, and the amount of time I have to succeed seems shorter. As a professor the number of different skills I am called on to use is greater, and the deadlines are shorter. I work more hours more consistently, and I have watched a lot less television (still a couple seasons behind on Fringe).

But given all that, it's easier being a professor.

The reason is, I now have confidence that I can do it.

When I was a grad student, I had no guarantee that I would ever be good at science. I wasn't sure my work would pay off so it was harder to do. I was at the bottom of the learning curve and every step was new and different.

Even the new things, if I fail at them, I still have the other things to count on as backup. I didn't have that in grad school. I just had a college diploma. And it was like that thru most of grad school. I didn't get any publications until right before I graduated, and I didn't even do an SFN poster until 4 years in. I was off in the wilderness and I had no external validation from the field. I was on the outside looking in, and there was no clear way in. That's a really hard and draining place to me.

Based on my own experiences, I do think that confidence in one's ability to achieve one's goals (known to social psychologists as self-efficacy) is one of the biggest factors in determining motivation. And motivation can determine success. 

If I believe my grant may be funded, I will work on it until 2 am; if I believe it's a crapshoot, I'll submit a half-baked one. If I believe it probably won't be funded, I'll spend the afternoon reading

I gained a big boost when I got my Ph.D. Then I really felt like "no matter what, they can't take this from me." When I got a couple publications, I could look back and say, those are in the scientific literature forever.

I try to remember this in my mentoring. I try to give more sympathy for the students than I would be inclined to. I think it might make the difference. I know for me back in the day having an advisor who could provide some validation kept me going through the roughest spots.

I knew it!

A year ago, everyone was wondering if Mittster could be the Republican nominee.

They said, "He's a Mormon and there is no way the fundamentalism Christians will vote for a Mormon."

I said, "They will happily vote for a Mormon. It won't even be an issue"

I just want to say, I was totally right.

It's less than 4 months to the election, and the Mormon thing hasn't come up at all. And I follow the election pretty closely. I'm sure that there are some whiny fundamentalists out there, but seriously, they seem to have called a truce. 

Not that I am right about everything. I predicted that his candidacy would cause the Fundies to change their tune on Mormons and finally admit they are regular protestants. That doesn't seem to have happened. 

Also I really though Perry would not be as totally dumb as he was. And I thought Huntsman would do better too. And I thought Palin would run.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

It's ok to go slow on online teaching

The president of UVA was removed in part for going too slow on the move to online teaching.

(She was later reinstated for other reasons).

Everywhere you turn, someone is freaking out about missing the bus on online teaching.

That's because everyone can tell there's a good chance it's going to be big, and there's a good chance it's going to change everything for all of us in academia.

I think it's good that everyone is eager to support innovation in pedagogy. But I think there's not much to worry about, even if things do change a lot. 

I think people look at Google and Bing and think, Google is ingrained and while Bing is just as good, and now Bing can't get traction. The same with Facebook and G+. There are some technologies where you gotta get in on the ground floor and then the attractor state is so strong that no one will switch.

But I think education is not that thing. And the reasons is that the teaching isnt really what people pay for. It's the broader experience, plus the accreditation.


I think there's very little cost to being slow on internet teaching. In the future, teaching will be run by specialized firms that are orthogonal to universities, and that rent out their services. It will be more like the textbook industry than the search engine industry. The lecturers for each lecture will be the best lecturers. Look, for example, at The Learning Company, which takes the best lecturers from anywhere.

There are already a jillion universities joining Coursera and some other online lecturing websites.

I highly doubt that any of our nation's 100 most prestigious universities will ever allow anyone to get a degree without living on campus for 8 semesters. The lectures will let the professors "flip the classroom" (as the kids say today), and with lecturing as homework and homework done, with professorial help, during class. The lectures will be seen as the cart and the classroom stuff will be the horse.

If you think about it, interactive pedagogy is a lot more appealing to most academic professors anyhow. That's what grad school is like.

Not that it affects my life anyhow. My university has chosen to move slow on this issue anyhow. Some faculty I know have made moves to goad the admins along but, apparently, to no avail. They can wring their hands all they want, I'll be sitting here in my comfy chair, drinking lemonade.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Did SFN affect the election in 2000?

You may be wondering why SFN is so early this year.

I honestly have no idea, but I once heard the following rumor:

It seems that some members of the leadership of the society is very pro-Democratic, and were pretty un-thrilled about the possibility that SFN's timing swayed the 2000 election.

The 2000 election took place on the Tuesday of SFN, which was in New Orleans that year. Many people I knew told me that they forgot to do the absentee voting thing.

It's an established fact that academics are much more likely to vote D than R. And it's an obvious fact that the SFN meeting attracts mostly academics. It's a very likely assumption that most of the people who went to SFN and didn't vote but would have were likely to go for Gore.

[True that year, many blue-ish types went for Nader, but in FL, that was about 1.6% of voters overall]

In 2000, the total attendance at SFN was 25849.

I have no idea how many of those people were Florida registered; let's guess that it was the same as Florida's share of the US population in 2000, or about 5%. But of course, much of SFN attendance is foreign. Lets assume (back of the envelope here), 40% foreign and 60% domestic. Meaning 3% of the meeting was FL-based.

That would be 775 people.

Florida came down to 537 votes. [or less by other methods, possibly 493, possibly less still.]

(Although, we all know, it actually came down to one vote in the Supreme Court, etc, etc, complexity, complexity.)

[NM was even closer that year ~350 ppl, but (1) went for Gore, (2) had a smaller number of electoral votes, and (3) smaller number of SFN attendees]

Point being, they are approximations but they are on the same order of magnitude!!

Yeah, probably lots of those people did absentee ballots (I did not, but I was living in a pre-determined state at the time), and lots would have given their vote to Nader, and some would have voted for Bush, and yes sure probably evil Bushies like James Baker would have manipulated the election anyway. And yes if I had more time, I would research these numbers so I wouldn't be guessing.

But regardless it's amazing to me how the timing of SFN may have nudged the election of 2000 enough that it's conceivable it made the difference. [Im not saying it DID make the difference. But I am suggesting it was in the ballpark, unless one of my assumptions is unreasonable].

I like SFN earlier anyhow. DC is frigid in late Nov, and I hate flying to SFN and then flying to Thanksgiving right after that. But beyond that, I think the Society is doing the right thing by avoiding election day.

I just hope that the Ernest Morial Convention Center realizes this and, to make some money, offers a steep discount to the Society of Ohio+Virginia Tea Partiers, so that maybe they will get drunk at Harrah's and forget to vote in 2012.

Why I don't think publishing more negative results is worth any effort at all

This is part II of my reaction to the standard litany of well-intentioned ideas to improve science.

One general refrain I hear everywhere is the need to avoid the file drawer effect, publication bias, and more generally the large dark matter of unpublished results floating in the center of the universe that, were it published, would save everyone lots of time.

While I am equally opposed to the file drawer effect, publication bias, and the agony of re-following someone else's doomed footsteps, I dont think the solution is as easy as publishing negative results. And definitely not requiring publication of negative results.

[edit: Obviously many negative results are published currently and Im not opposed to that. Im talking about requiring publication of all negative results.]

Back in my undergraduate days, in physical chemistry, we learned the reason for the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. There is only one way to be ordered and many many ways to be disordered.

The same principle applies to science. There is only one reason your experiment worked: you did it right and your hypothesis was right*. There are many many reasons it didn't work: most of them are the huge number of ways you did the experiment wrong. One of them is that you did everything perfectly but it just happened your hypothesis was wrong. But that's just one.

[* It's also possible it worked by chance, but we already deal with that possibility through hypothesis testing.]

Im not just talking about making basic mistakes. There are many levels at which problems could creep in. I won't enumerate them. Suffice it to say, science is hard. Even those of us who have been doing it for 12 years (=me) still screw up more often than we get it right. I have oodles of negative results in my file drawer (technically in folders on my laptop). Some of them are probably negative results because I did silly stupid sloppy things I would be embarrassed for anyone to know about.

I suppose I COULD take the time to do everything right, but maybe I used a task that is slightly wrong. So I should try all slightly different tasks. Or maybe I was recording a few millimeters away from the hotspot. So I could go explore all the adjacent areas. I COULD do that, but I don't have all the time in the universe. And until I do, my negative results are not interpretable by anyone.

We have a current system for publication of negative results. It's called word of mouth. I recently got interested in Exciting New Brain Area "X". I casually asked a couple people what they had heard about it. They told me they heard persons Y and Z were recording there. I casually asked Y and Z for their reactions. They both told me they got negative results. Their experiences gave me some guidance on how to proceed. They did not have to spend a month preparing manuscripts summarizing their findings. They just had to talk to me for a minute or two. Much less effort for them!

This is why I am all in favor of grad students travelling more and talking to other scientists. I think that informal communication conveys as much information as published papers and talks. But that's a topic for another post.

Would pre-registering studies really work?

The zeitgeist is that science is deeply corrupt and needs to take major steps to improve its quality.

I agree that there are problems in science, although I think (following research by Dan Ariely) that major cheaters are relatively rare and that minor cheating is near universal. I also doubt that cheating has increased, but I have no research to support that idea.

Anyhow, one of the Big Ideas people often use to improve the situation is pre-registration of studies. I feel like I see someone suggest this at least once a week. Best example is this one. I personally don't see how this could possibly work.

In my experience, probably about 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 studies that I initiate wind up being published. And I think this is probably close to an optimal number. More often than not, we start collecting data and things look like it's not worth pursuing.

Sometimes the results look a lot more confusing. Sometimes the results look great, but in the meantime, we've thought of an awesome tweak, or even major improvement. Sometimes we think of a totally different experiment that is much cooler. Since an experiment in my field takes minimum 6 months of a person's life away, it sucks to do something that isn't the coolest possible idea you have.

Sometimes we find out a colleague is working on something similar. Sometimes there's a big meeting we want to present a certain story at. Sometimes the data tell us our theory was dumb and suggest a better theory.

In all these cases, taking the time to publish a negative result is not worth the cost. Either to me or to the field. But pre-registering studies would force us to spend that time. It would greatly impede the gradient descent process that characterizes our search for cool results.

And I dont know what it would add. Publishing negative results is great in theory, but I think reading a paper that summarizes a negative result would be almost a waste of time. This is getting long... I will explain why I am skeptical about negative results in my next post.

This may be highly field specific. In clinical studies, sure, go for it, pre-register. In my particular tiny little area, no way. I dont know how other areas work, but I suspect most scientists have a similar gradient descent procedure. In fact, in my field, the studies are quite involved, take ~6 months of hard work to collect the data for, and require big preparations. I think we are near to the clinical study end of the spectrum. I suspect that in fields with quicker studies, pre-registering is even more of a non-starter.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The hottest day of the year

Remember seeing this?

And remember when walking to work was like this?

Remember when you DIDNT want to just jump right into the lake??

Even going out of doors for a moment was a trudge??

It seems so very far away. 

But it cools me off just to look at these pictures.

Does Frontiers want to be taken more seriously?

I love Frontiers in theory, I honestly do.
There are a lot of great things about it.

But I think they can't be taken 100% seriously unless they take some steps to improve their image.

Basic stuff to make them seem like a legitimate journal, not something someone did over spring break.

I would recommend the following 7 things:

1. Make the website a lot faster.

2. Hire someone to organize it logically. It's nearly impossibly to find things one wants. I'm thinking they could use the Google+ system, since no one else is using it. That way they'd have a search function that works. But also, they need to hire someone who has a sense of website navigation. It's almost comical how hard it is to find the thing you want.

3. Avoid mission creep. As Frontiers keeps expanding, it seems more and more like a Ponzi Scheme, expanding into new areas as old ones wither. This would also reduce clutter on the website and make it easier to find things.

4. And on the mission creep domain, Stop trying to be Facebook. Scientists already have a social network. It's called Facebook.

5. Stop spamming reviewers all the time. Especially with articles that are distant from anything we know about.

6. Give up on the 'interactive review' theory. Most people I have talked to informally write a normal review, put all the comments in one box, and ignore the rest. And then get really annoyed with more than one extra round. We are giving out time to review. We don't want to have a conversation.

7. I dont know if it's just me but there seem to be cookie problems. Frontiers never remembers that I am logged in, and asks for my password every time I go there. No idea why. I dont have this problem with most other websites I use.

Thoughts on turning 1

I am the only professor in the department who doesn't know his/her office phone number.

My phone is in the drawer. Call my cell phone.

I refuse to use the University email system. I still use gmail exclusively.

I am the newbie, so I am the only professor in the dept who has to park a zillion miles away and walk.

I am the only professor who doesn't have a desktop computer. Even though they'd let me put in on my startup, I don't want one. Too much hassle.

As far as I can tell, I have the best summer attendance record of the faculty in the department. Not sure that's a good thing.

I'm the only person who has never been on a faculty search committee, so I am the only one who is excited to see how that particular sausage gets made. Everyone else is jaded, probably justifiably, and laughs at my enthusiasm.

I'm the only person I know who brings his dog to his office. I think I might be getting dirty looks when I do that.

I need a good book on the Theory of Mentoring.

I get a tiny thrill when undergraduates call me "Professor." Although a pedantic voice in my head wants to correct them and say "Technically I am an Assistant Professor."

I still don't have the whiteboard in my office I asked for a year ago. I wonder where it is. Probably time to nag someone.

I still have not been propositioned by an undergraduate in exchange for a grade, slept with a student, fought viciously with anyone over space, written a devastating book review of the guy next door, or spent a whole semester coming in to work and sleeping in my office all day, or any of the other stereotypical things professors do in movies. I don't have elbow pads or a tweed anything.

I am the only person in the department with a protocol to do research in Puerto Rico. This will be useful in February when it is freezing cold here and 85 degrees in PR.

First Birthday!

I have been a baby professor for one year!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Why do MBA types use the word "solution" all the time?

First I thought it sounded ridiculous, but then I realized, might as well lean into it.

So on m CV, instead of "manuscripts in prep" now it says "solutions in prep".

And my spring course, instead of being called "laboratory in neurophysiology" will be called "Workshop in Neurosolutions"

And my lab meeting is called "Solutions Breakout Session".

Any my R01, instead of "Background, Significance, Methods" is divided into "Previous solutions, Strategic Dynamic Solutions, and Solutions."

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Some famous TV Shows are structurally superhero narratives

Hero: Dexter
Superpower: Super-fighting
Secret Identity: Dexter, the nerdy detective
Weakness: Psychopath
Sidekick: Harry's Ghost

Breaking Bad
Hero: Walter
Super-power: Super-chemistry
Secret Identity: High School teacher
Weakness: Anger issues
Sidekick: Jesse

Mad Men:
Hero: Don Draper
Super-power: Super copy-writing
Secret Identity: The man in the gray flannel suit
Weakness: Existential ennui
Sidekick: Roger

Hero: Tony
Super-power: Good at running a criminal organization
Secret Identity: Law abiding citizen
Weakness: Needs psychiatric help
Sidekick: Christopher

Veronica Mars
Hero: Veronica
Super-power: Super-sleuthing
Secret Identity: Mild mannered high school student
Weakness: Logan
Sidekick: Her father

Big Love
Hero:  Bill
Super-power: Super-polygamy
Secret Identity: Monogamous regular guy
Weakness: Nutty, also, connection to compound
Sidekick: Bud